Terror Train 1981 ***


The Shining is such a one-off, a scary film that takes place largely in brightly lit interiors, that features few deaths and no explanation; there’s literally nothing quite like it. Kubrick’s cinematographer, John Alcott, was quite a talent, and his gifts were immediately put to good use in this unassuming little slasher movie which did no harm at all to the reputation of director Roger Spottiswoode (Under Fire, Tomorrow Never Dies) star (Jamie Lee Curtis) or even the budding career of a young magician named David Copperfield.

Terror Train also has a very clever idea that makes it somewhat unique. Yes, it’s Halloween on a train, in which a maniac boards a booze-cruise-on-rails full of partying medical students, including Curtis. The killer is wearing a disguise, and seeking revenge for a prank played many moons ago. But each victim he kills leads to a costume change, making it quite a tricky business to keep track of his movements; the audience is constantly looking for a man in a mask, but it’s the mask of the last victim you’re searching for.

Alcott goes to town on the train, framed by a beautiful exterior shot in the opening credits, and then with each compartment framed in very different light; Alcott’s use of colour certainly evokes memories of the Overlook’s past glories, and his use of diffuse lighting is very Eyes Wide Shut. And there’s lots of action on the train, including a very odd house band who conjure up a number of moods, and the novelty of several routines from Copperfield which derail the film’s momentum with their variety-show pacing.

Overall, Terror Train is something of a curiosity; back in 1981, it must have seemed like the slasher movie fad would never end, but Terror Train now appears to be one of the best of a rather tatty bunch. Cast, technical aspects and conception are all first rate; horror fans used to scraping the bottom of barrels may well find that Terror Train is worthy of a return ticket.

The Legend of Hell House 1973 ****


When it comes to haunted house movies, the influences on The Shining should not be overlooked. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting is one, Richard Matheson’s book Hell House, filmed here with a more elaborate title, is another. John Hough’s film is often forgotten in the annals of great horror, perhaps because of its PG certificate, yet it’s an intense and original take on the genre that serves up a veritable banquet of scares.
The scenario is familiar; a group of intrepid ghost hunters, scientists, mediums, arrive at Belasquo House, dubbed ‘the Mount Everest of Haunted Houses’. Ben Fischer (Roddy McDowell) is the only survivor of a previous attempt to understand the house’s secrets, and he’s joined by physicist Lionel Barratt (Clive Revill) and his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt), plus spiritualist Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin). Belasquo is long dead, or at least misplaced since he allegedly poisoned a group of visitors who ate at his manor. Séances are planned and executed, while a computer big enough to store a rugby team inside arrives, and a book of auto-erotica is found and perused; this isn’t a lowest-common denominator stalk and slash at all.
A property ‘haunted by multiple personalities’ certainly brings to mind the varied an unexplained inhabitants of the Overlook hotel, although there’s a quaint British-ness about some of the proceedings here; the presence of Peter Bowles and discussion about whether the house as a ‘full larder’ firmly identify what kind of vibe the house has. There’s also a strong sexual undercurrent that belies the family certificate; presumably the lack of gore persuaded the censor to turn a blind eye to the nudity. The investigation into violent psychic activity reaches a fairly vice-like crescendo, even if the dialogue occasions becomes over ripe; ‘The cat?’ “Yes, it was possessed by Daniel Belasquo!”
The screenplay, direction and performances are all top notch, but the icing on the cake is the foreboding electronic soundtrack by pioneer Delia Derbyshire, which adds an unsettling edge to the film. Something of a neglected classic, The Legend of Hell House is one of the few great horror film that you’re probably not seen yet.

Doctor Sleep 2019 ****


‘When I was a kid, I didn’t understand the shining,’ says Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) in Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of the novel by Stephen King. It’s a fair point; I saw The Shining when I was 12, and was chilled, filled with dread, hugely impressed, but also genuinely didn’t quite understand what I’d just seen. Stanley Kubrick’s film has since been much discussed and dissected, with many fanboy and conspiracy theories about the possible meanings, and that elusiveness it a key part of the haunting appeal. The biggest problem Doctor Sleep has is that, by positioning The Shining as part of a larger story, the meanings are nailed down and the sense of mystery is palpably reduced.

That said, Doctor Sleep is probably the best adaptation of King’s work since 1980, and a lot more faithful to the letter of his writing. Young Danny is seen getting advice from Dick Halloran (Carl Lumbly) about how to put his demons to rest, imagining a series of boxes into which his fears are captured and forgotten. But Danny has demons of his own, and his battle with alcohol mirrors that of his father Jack. Danny starts life in a new town, but his ‘shining’ creates a connection to Abra, a young girl with a similar gift. Meanwhile, a new plotline details the antics of Four Non Blondes-influenced vampire Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) whose crew require the ‘steam’ of innocent young victims to survive. Rose has designs on Abra, and Danny is torn between his fears of his past and his desire to help the young girl.

Flanagan is something of a whiz with post-modern horror; his Ouija: Origins of Evil showed he could take rote characters and plot elements and fashion something fresh and memorable from them. And his Haunting of Hill House tv show brilliantly used the original Shirley Jackson novel as a base for a much more expansive but spiritually connected story. He was the perfect choice for the film, and does well to create a work that’s faithful both to King and Kubrick; fans of The Shining in all its incarnations will know that Halloran’s fate differs in the film to the book, but Flanagan cleverly fudges whether the character is alive or dead as the story starts. He clearly enjoys working in the Stephen King meta-verse, and Doctor Sleep also links ingeniously with many of King’s preoccupations.

Kubrick famously cut many of the supernatural elements from King’s novel, and created something suggestive, grim and foreboding. Flanagan and King have repurposed many of the familiar elements as part of a new and very different story, one that riffs neatly on the original property while going off in a fresh direction. McGregor gives probably the best performance of his career as Danny, wrestling with his demons in some depth, while Ferguson is a slippery foe in Rose. Doctor Sleep can’t aspire to be the game-changer that Kubrick’s The Shining was, but it’s a styling, entertaining sequel that thrills and chills on route to a satisfying finale that brings back the many demons of the bad place for one more chilling go-round.


The Changeling 1980 ****


Still beavering away in TV-land, Peter Medak’s films as director as a mixed bunch, from his brilliant collaboration with Peter O’Toole on The Ruling Class to Species II. As a director, he seemed willing to try his hand to anything, and his foray into horror with 1980’s The Changeling resulted in something of a genre classic. George C Scott lends his considerable gravity to the role of John Russell, who moves into a cavernous haunted house after the death of his wife and daughter in an accident. John is in a somewhat sensitive condition, and the supernatural forces in the house take full advantage. Martin Scorcese, who was probably in quite a sensitive state himself in 1980 by his own admission, is a big admirer of this film, and for good reason; Medak’s POV shots and atmospheric direction conjure up a superior ghost story, with good work from Scott and his wife Trish Van Devere. It’s got many of the same elements of The Shining, and even if the story is more traditional, it’s in the same ball-park for scares.

Room 237 2016 ***

Room 237

Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining has become something of a Rorschach blot in which everyone seems something different emerging from the murk. Rodney Ascher’s documentary allows six contributors to unfold their theories about the potential meanings, with everyone working from the premise that the great man couldn’t possibly have set his sights so low as a straightforward horror film. Room 237 suggests, amongst other things, that The Shining is Kubrick’s apology for faking the moon landings, or that it’s an examination of Native American genocide. The arguments aren’t particularly well presented; no interviewees are seen, and their droning voices are intermingled, so that it’s sometimes unclear which theory is which. But while none of the theories are convincing, Ascher’s film forces audiences to look at the wealth of detail in one film, and consider why so many diverse people have been fascinated by its elusive, elliptical content.

Room 237 2012 ***



Rodney Asher’s documentary is a disjointed but still engrossing essay about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and invites a series of theorists to discuss what the 1980 film is really about. Using clips from the film, and some ingeniously spliced in footage from Demons 2, Asher provides a platform for his guests to speculate on whether Kubrick’s film addresses subjects from the possible faming of moon-landings to the genocide of American Indians. The voices of the contributors are heard, but their faces are not seen, which proves problematic when their thesis are jumbled together, but there’s morsels of interest throughout. Some of the interpretations, particularly those involving faces in clouds or the confused geography of the Overlook hotel, are hard to credit, but still worth hearing; it’s clear that all parties can’t believe that Kubrick would just make a straight horror film, and attribute every misplaced chair and costume choice to a greater, more sinister purpose.

Hotel 2004 ***


Writer/director Jessica Hausner scored an art-house hit with Lourdes in 2009, but his 2004 horror film Hotel is an unrecognized exercise in mystery and tension that lands somewhere between David Lynch and The Shining. Irene (Franzisca Weisz) gets a job at a remote hotel in the Austrian Alps, and is disturbed to hear a local legend of a forest witch, with a puppet of the witch kept in a glass display in the lobby. Irene goes about her duties, cleaning swimming and taking advantage of the voluminous space, but there’s a growing feeling of unease as she traverses the dark corridors…Hausner creates an above-average exercise in suspense with hotel, which plays on our fears of communal spaces and, while remaining ambiguous, never steps into the realm of special effects or rubber monsters. Fans of Picnic at Hanging Rock will understand the sub-genre; not much happens, but the way it doesn’t happen is nerve-shredding.